Speculative Zoology has become a big draw here at Tet Zoo and I’ve now had reason to write about the subject on quite a few occasions (see links below). Today I’m writing about it again because a very interesting book wholly devoted to the subject has recently appeared: artist Marc Boulay and palaeontologist Sébastien Steyer’s Demain, les Animaux du Futur*. This lavishly illustrated softback volume describes the organisms of a hypothetical age 10 million years in the future – the Early Neozoic – in which humans are long-extinct, the 6th Great Extinction has been and gone, and a variety of new species inhabit the oceans and landmasses. Incidentally, the possibility exists that the book is set in the same universe as certain other speculative projects, since it covers a period of time that most of the others miss or don't cover.

* The title doesn’t translate especially well into English. Literally, it’s Tomorrow, the Animals of the Future, but I suspect it should be imagined as something like ‘The Animals of Tomorrow’.

I should say up-front that the book is in French, and so far only exists as a French-language edition. However, there are plans to produce an English-language version. Whatever, speculative zoology fans should consider getting the volume for its illustratione alone. The book has been the subject of an enormous amount of interest in France and I've seen numerous interviews (in magazines, newspapers, TV shows and so on) devoted to the project. This is more evidence for the popularity of the genre (something I covered in my TetZooCon talk last year).

At left: the book that started it all. At right: life-sized models of two 'Dixonian epoch' animals (Neopygoscelis and Propellonectes) at the IRSNB (photos by Darren Naish).

The theme explored here is, I hardly need say, very similar to that of Dougal Dixon’s After Man (Dixon 1981) and that of the TV series and book The Future Is Wild (Dixon & Adams 2004). But don’t go thinking that the authors ignore that fact. On the contrary, they make fair reference to Dixon and to other creators of speculative worlds and creatures and created their own vision after being inspired by these works. The genesis of their project is, I presume, reflected at the Institut Royal des Sciences Naturelles de Belgique installation on the ‘Dixonian epoch’, since it includes some of the creatures that feature in the book.

The text doesn’t revolve around story-telling – of ‘day in the life’ style tales of what given animals get up to (as per The Future Is Wild and the Walking With books). Well, there is a bit of this, but the text is mostly devoted to describing the world we’re immersed in, and of telling us about the biology, ecology and evolutionary history of the organisms we meet. Profile sections introduce specific species and describe facts relevant to their biology, ecology and anatomy. They have binomial names, and these are often fun (albeit believable): as a fan of the Alien films, Blade Runner and Daft Punk I enjoyed the various references. H. G. Wells, Gert van Dijk (of Furaha), palaeoartist Zdeněk Burian and others are commemorated.

Night-vision scene from a Euroafrican savannah: Necropteryx at left, Tyrannornis at right. Image from Boulay & Steyer (2015).
A few representative pages, chosen to give you some idea of how picture-filled this book is.

Full-colour images feature on virtually every page of Demain, les Animaux du Futur. There are also diagrams illustrating numerous details of anatomy and the evolutionary sequences that led to given anatomical configurations. The CG, photo-real artwork is really spectacular and many of the complaints so often levelled at CG depictions of animals do not apply. The animals fit into their environments, they lack any crass efforts at motion-blurring, and they’re well colour-matched and correct in terms of ‘heat’ and shadow relative to the surroundings. We’re seeing the work of a true master of the craft. Many of the images are memorable and extremely clever. One of my favourites is a night-vision scene showing an altercation between the carrion-eating, flightless raptor Necropteryx and the giant parrot Tyrannornis.

The animals of this world are a fascinating lot and I like a great many of them – they look neat, plausible, and anatomically sensible. The illustrations make them look very ‘real world’: some of the birds have frayed, gnarly keratin on their crests and bills, ruffled plumage and other details which show that the artist has been paying a great deal of attention to what animals really look like.

Creatures of the Neozoic oceans

Neopygoscelis, a large, deep-diving, pliosauromorph penguin. Soaring over the ocean above we see a giant bat, on which more below. Image from Boulay & Steyer (2015).

There are a substantial number of animals here – more than I can write about. We start off by looking at the marine fauna. As can be predicted given the probable state of near-future conditions, over-fishing, pollution, acidification and warming have resulted in a catastrophic collapse of our present marine fauna. Numerous modern animal groups have disappeared entirely, including several important plankton groups and a great many marine vertebrate lineages. A whole different ecosystem and set of species have arisen, the majority of biological wealth being benthic and well below the warm waters of the surface.

Tiny catfish with bioluminescent lures are super-abundant and occupy the role taken in our time by such species as krill. Diverse squid – some of which are superficially fish-like, others of which are gigantic (Rhombosepia is 10 metres long) – are shown occupying middle- and top-tier roles occupied at the moment by bony fish, sharks and cetaceans. Even tetrapod devotees have to grudgingly admit that cephalopods have enormous potential, especially so in a world with massively reduced vertebrate diversity.

Giant, future penguins have, of course, been a mainstay of the spec zoo literature since Dixon created the Vortex. Here's a montage of future penguins by Tim Morris, from the [now fallow?] Speculative Dinosaur Project.

Several flightless seabirds are present. The large, deep-diving penguin Neopygoscelis might be familiar if you’re a long-term Tet Zoo reader. There are also large, somewhat hesperornithine-like flightless petrels (though, ironically, they descend from one of the most terrestrial of petrel lineages).

Perhaps the most surprising creature of the Neozoic oceans is Benthogyrinus – a wing-headed, super-sized, suspension-feeding beast, 40 metres long. It might best be described as a gargantuan, armour-plated tadpole-whale. And that's an apt description, as it’s a paedomorphic, sea-dwelling frog. A descendant of Xenopus. In order to imagine such a beast, we have to envision frogs undergoing some major developmental, physiological and morphogenic shifts. Given that we already know of frogs that (contra popular wisdom) can deal with some degree of salinity (see this Tet Zoo comment from 2008), the evolution of a fully marine lineage is imaginable. As for those other changes... hey, this is what speculative zoology is all about and I, for one, welcome our new gargantuan marine tadpole monster overlords.

Flightless birds: ‘new dinosaurs’

Moving now to the terrestrial realm, the large animal fauna is dominated by flightless birds, including descendants of ducks, waders, raptors, parrots, hummingbirds and crows. Many have converged on a thick-legged, shaggy-plumaged, ratite-like morph, meaning that the terrestrial habitats of the world are full of creatures that look something like giant kiwis and cassowaries. I don’t say this to criticise – it’s an important point that birds are somewhat constrained in potential as goes overall shape and form... can they do anything truly innovative? I don't want to give everything away, but I will say that the book includes quadrupedal birds.

Head-shot of male Tyrannornis rex (females are less gaudy and without the casque). Image by Marc Boulay, from Boulay & Steyer (2015).

Hadrornis and Giraffornis are giant, long-necked anseriforms. Necropteryx is a large, flightless descendant of the Bearded vulture Gypaetus barbatus. It absolutely looks the part, with its long, pseudo-toothed bill (it's the creature depicted on the upper part of the cover). Tringapterus is a vaguely cassowary-like, sexually dimorphic flightless wader with a dagger-like bill. Tyrannornis rex – yes, the T. rex of the piece – is a gargantuan pseudo-toothed parrot (and one of several species in this genus). Neoviraptor is a short-faced flightless corvid that specialises on eating eggs. On that last point, a speculative animal can be specialised for whatever its designers wish, but did they base this idea on the supposed diet of Cretaceous oviraptorid theropods? The possibility that oviraptorids ate eggs still exists, but it looks more likely that they were predominantly herbivorous, or omnivores that consumed a large amount of plant material.

We thus see a radiation of ‘new dinosaurs’, and it’s quite easy to see parallels – or, specifically, cases of evolutionary convergence – between these birds and the theropods of the Mesozoic. This is not ignored by the authors. It again raises a very interesting and real possibility: we know that birds of many groups have the evolutionary potential to become big, flightless forms of this sort, so, for as long are birds are around, it’s almost as if the world could once again become the domain of dinosaurs of a sort mostly associated with the Mesozoic. Not sauropod- or tyrannosaur-mimics, but of fuzzy, beaked theropods much like those that first appeared more than 100 million years ago.

A world of future bats

Mammals are still present in the Early Neozoic but are only represented by bats. The authors emphasise how this enormous, diverse and globally distributed group (remember – accounting for 20% or more of all mammal species today) could have an incredible future, assuming, that is, that they’re not too severely afflicted by anthropogenic changes. Some very, very interesting things have happened. An entirely new group of giant sky-bats – the descendants of fast-flying, streamlined free-tailed bats like Tadarida – have evolved, and have developed a suite of innovations that allow them to fly, live and hunt at altitude.

The enormous high-altitude sky-bat Gigapterus troposherus cruising at altitude. Image from Boulay & Steyer (2015).

Some of the species we’re introduced to are boldly patterned, mega-winged giants with wingspans of up to 15 metres. Giant lungs, an air-sac system and a pouch used to contain the young have evolved. The bats also have a novel wing form. Many have incredibly high-aspect wings, and additional membranes and patagial lobes are present in some species. The hindlimbs are reduced to near-absence in the Velocipterus species, some of which look like long-winged, mammalian butterflies.

Whether bats might ever evolve pneumaticity, giant size, committed diurnality and an ability to give birth on the wing are all questions asked at one time or another by those interested in bat evolution: they haven’t happened yet, but is there the potential for such features to evolve? I think that potential, at least, does exist, and these speculations are certainly thought-provoking.

Nesferapoda, from Boulay & Steyer (2015). This image is actually borrowed from Gert van Dijk's review of the book from Furahan Biology & Allied Matters.

And then there are the flightless bats. Fans of speculative zoology will immediately be thinking of Dixon’s Night stalker. Nesferapoda of the Neozoic is not especially similar. It’s a direct descendant of Desmodus, and is a knuckle-walking quadruped. As I said above, an interesting thing about the book is that the authors don’t discuss their creatures within an in-universe context only (as is the style for works like this); rather, they make proper reference to the ideas that have gone before, and note how speculative terrestrial bats – including the Night stalker and the Future Predator of Primeval – have appeared before in the works of others. They are – much like those giant penguins – ‘classic’ beasts of the genre and, as the authors note, a certain number of constraints require that speculative bats can only really end up heading in a few given evolutionary directions (Boulay & Steyer 2015).

Arthropods, echinoderms, plants... plants??!

But there’s more. A large Scolopendra centipede that has evolved a gliding ability is one of their most terrifying creations. There are giant marine echinoderms – the predatory ‘terminator urchin’ Neocidaris schwarzenheggeri (erm, typo – that specific name should be schwarzeneggeri) and crustaceans that ride aboard the giant Benthogyrinus. And then there are plants. It’s all too tempting when creating a future world to put your crazy future animals into an essentially modern flora. After all, who cares about plants, right? But plants are just as dynamic and changeable as animals – if not more so, in fact – and I really respect the fact that Boulay and Steyer went to the trouble of thinking about, and designing, these crucial components of their world.

Marc Boulay at work, building an image of Tyrannornis, 200 kg+ descendant of Psittacus-like parrots.

There is much more to the Neozoic world than outlined in this review. A section at the end discusses tectonics, climate and other big-picture stuff, while the book ends by looking at the creative process that led to the creation of the Neozoic world. Echoing sentiments made previously here at Tet Zoo, it should be said that speculative zoology is not mere frivolous fun, but inspires us to think about the shape of evolution, about the impact we’re having on the world and its fauna, and about the possibilities and limitations that exist as regards the organisms around us today. Overfishing, overhunting, pollution, climate change, human population expansion and a myriad other things may paint a view of the future somewhat bereft of hopefulness, but a future exists nonetheless and even a future with a depauperate fauna is still a future with a fauna.

Marc Boulay and Sébastien Steyer have succeeded in creating a fantastic and compelling view of a future that is not provincial or small in scope. It is a grand, vibrant, diverse vision of imaginary life, and it looks amazing. I’m sure that their book will inspire a new generation of fans and thinkers who will now become turned-on to the world of Dixonian fiction and discover the exciting works that already populate the genre.

Boulay's scene showing part of 'The infinite mangrove' (though flipped horizontally relative to the one in the book). Note the bats and speculative vegetation. The CG render is really nice.

Needless to say, the fact that Demain, les Animaux du Futur currently only exists as a French-language edition does somewhat limit its impact in some parts of the world. There is certainly call for an English-language version, and I’m sure that versions in other languages would do well too. I wish every success to such ventures and hope to hear more about this book and its impact in future.

Marc Boulay and Sébastian Steyer. 2015. Demain, les Animaux du Futur. Softback, index, pp. 157. €23 $58 £15.87. Éditions Belin, Paris. ISBN 978-2-7011-5886-0. Here at amazon. Here at amazon.co.uk.

For previous Tet Zoo articles on speculative zoology, see...

Refs - -

Boulay, M. & Steyer, S. 2015. Demain, les Animaux du Futur. Éditions Belin, Paris.

Dixon, D. 1981. After Man: A Zoology of the Future. Granada, London.

- . & Adams, J. 2004. The Future Is Wild: A Natural History of the Future. Dorling Kindersley, London.